Jerusalem light rail - Tomer Appelbaum - 08112011
An overcrowded Jerusalem light rail carriage. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
Text size

A young ultra-Orthodox man with a long black beard and flowing black coat got on an Egged bus this week in a relatively secular neighborhood of Jerusalem. He quickly looked up and down the bus. It was late and there were few passengers, and he sighed in relief upon spotting three empty adjacent seats. He sat down, placing beside him his attache case and, on the seat opposite, his wide-brimmed hat wrapped in a dark plastic bag against the rain.

As the driver halted at stops for other passengers, the man looked up anxiously as a few travelers stepped on, huddled together against the cold. He quickly averted his eyes when a woman passed down the aisle, seating herself farther down the bus. The buffer zone he had created around him remained inviolate.

Jerusalem's public transport system is a perfect metaphor for the situation in which Israeli society finds itself at the beginning of 2012. The city's three communities are trying to keep their distance from each other. As Haaretz's religious affairs correspondent wrote last week, the real segregation on the "mehadrin" bus-lines are not between men and women. Instead they are between the Haredi passengers who use them and the secular/masorati/dati Jerusalemites who are discouraged from doing so.

Meanwhile, few Jewish city residents are aware of this but the Arab population has its own totally separate transport system, with its own central bus station and stops, a network of white buses, operating in the east of the city, and traversing Jewish areas without stopping to connect outlying Arab neighborhoods. For now, the Jewish and Arab buses coexist peacefully on parallel lines, while the different Jewish communities have started bickering on the hegemony over the Egged buses.

But one urban area cannot sustain disconnected transport systems for long; the volume of traffic is forever growing beyond the capacity of old roads. The three communities of Jerusalem are now being forced into the same carriages of the light rail network - years overdue, billions over budget, under speed and with a route of debatable efficiency, but finally up and running. And over the last five months, it has been the one closed space in which members of all the communities have been rubbing shoulders.

Naturally, this hasn't been without friction. Before the light rail service began, Haredi politicians demanded separate compartments for men and women. For once their demands were refused. Occasional scuffles have broken out in the carriages, with security guards proving a little too ready to pepper spray Arab youths accused of rowdiness, but on the whole the gray-silver trains have wended their way in peace from Pisgat Ze'ev, through Shuafat, by the Haredi neighborhoods in the north of the city, through downtown across nationalist-religious Kiryat Moshe and the secular hold-out of Beit Hakerem.

I doubt any friendships have sprung up on the light rail - people usually keep to themselves - but for a short while, the three communities are forced to leave their ghettoes and coexist in a closed space. Whatever the political future of Jerusalem, it will continue to be a unified urban area, the circumstances of city life giving disparate groups no choice but to share certain joint areas.

Unorthodox thinking required

The recent wave of clashes between the communities making up Jerusalem and nearby Beit Shemesh is novel only in the disproportionate media attention they have attracted. In many ways, this is similar to the social justice protests that swept Israel last summer. There was nothing new about the inequalities and economic hardships hundreds of thousands were railing against; only the combination of articulate spokespeople and the media that, for a few weeks, had nothing more exciting to report.

In both cases, social ills that have been festering away for years are suddenly being thrust into the light of day, with all the subtlety and erudition that our national tabloid press and television are famed for. Add to that the leftist agenda of most Israeli journalists, who hope to find new issues to erode the support of the Netanyahu coalition, which is also a factor here in emphasizing each new report of a Haredi man directing a sexist remark toward a secular woman.

But while politics plays a major role, it is obscuring the deeper social process. Israel is too small to sustain for much longer a structure of isolated communities. It is not only the national economy that is increasingly under strain due to the low workforce participation in the ultra-Orthodox and Israeli Arab communities, which increases the tax burden on the non-Haredi Jewish sectors. It also creates tensions within these communities.

The aspirations of a younger generation, not prepared to lead a life of financial and intellectual poverty when the wider Israeli economy offers so many avenues for professional advancement, is a national challenge. The series of events that have been catalogued in recent weeks by the media - under the misleading headline of "female exclusion" - are merely a side-effect of this convergence of communities, a consequence of the gradually increasing participation of Haredi men in a workplace which, at the same time, is also expanding the integration of women.

There is no excuse for sexism, discrimination or violence, but politicians who eagerly pounce on these instances are simply out to serve their own narrow interests. The Haredi leadership is even more narrow-minded and, out of concern for its own weakening hold on an increasingly independent-minded constituency, is emphasizing obscure chumrot under the bogus banners of modesty and purity as never before in Jewish history. There is no reason, though, to punish the hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox men and women who are eager for a chance to earn an honest living, for the sins of hard-line rabbis and a handful of bigoted fanatics.

Israel is currently enjoying the lowest rate of unemployment in its history, and this is an ideal opportunity to integrate new communities into the workplace. The government is beholden to the Haredi parties in the coalition, under order from the rabbis to maintain the untenable benefits-based financial system currently underpinning the ultra-Orthodox community. The Arab Israelis, meanwhile, are suffering neglect of a different order and cannot rely either on their political representatives, who are adept mainly at scoring points on nationalist issues.

In the same way that the protests of Rothschild Boulevard were forgotten and the recommendations of the Trajtenberg Committee frittered away, so the current craze for Haredi horror stories is already dissipating. The real issue - the problems and challenges of 40 percent of Israelis currently excluded from the mainstream of Israel's society and economy - is not going to go away and will come back to bite us. The buffer zones are a fiction that will not hold back the inevitable change for long.